18 New Content Marketing Rules

What can brands learn from Red Bull, Dove, GoPro, Warby Parker, ESPN, Chipotle, and Oreo?

Content Marketing

Experts point to brands like Red Bull, Dove, GoPro, Warby Parker, ESPN, Chipotle and Oreo as examples of those that are getting content marketing right. So how can your brand or business create comparable content, determine which platforms are right, and cut through noise to engage your target audiences?

Great branded content will inevitably find its audience because consumers are naturally attracted to it. That’s the good news, at least according to Jonathan Perelman, vice president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, who was one of the speakers at Social Media Week in New York. But great content is the prerequisite.

“If the story is great, the platform is almost secondary,” agrees another speaker, Pauline Malcolm, vice president of agency strategy and development at short form video firm Maker Studios. So brands must start out by essentially going back to the art of storytelling.

And, no matter what platform they choose to tell their stories, the basic principles of marketing remain the same, said Jonathan Hall, president of consulting at brand development and marketing services firm Added Value: Understand human truths and connect with consumers.

Here are the new rules of content creation these marketing experts and others shared throughout the conference.

1. Figure Out Who Your Brand Really Is

Harry Bernstein, creative director and founder digital agency The 88, said that Instagram in particular has revealed which brands don’t understand themselves. In other words, camera brand GoPro’s Instagram feed has lots of action scenes and eyeglass brand Warby Parker has “a bunch of nerds with glasses,” he said. “It’s authentic and coming out. But if you don’t have a good understanding of yourself, you’re not going to connect with consumers,” which, he said, is a problem for some big brands.

“It’s like you can’t love someone until you love yourself. That’s it for brands, too,” Bernstein said.

2. Produce Content That Reflects Who Your Brand Really Is

Persuasion models of old “survived way past their sell-by dates because they suited brand owners,” Hall said. “But in this day and age, it’s who you really are that counts. Talk is less meaningful. What you do has more impact. And the magic lies in the combination.”

He uses the example of personal care brand Dove, as well as feminine hygiene brand Always, which he said more or less copied the former in its #LikeaGirl effort.

“Dove defied category norms and established…that the world would be a better place if they made more women feel more beautiful every day. And, from this, came the Campaign for Real Beauty,” Hall said.

Related to this is the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, which was created to “act as an agent of change to inspire and educate girls and women about a wider definition of beauty,” the brand says.

And, tied to the Self-Esteem Fund is the Dove BodyThink program, an educational tool for teachers and youth workers that is a “commitment to promoting positive body image messages to young people and the broader community.”

3. Give Consumers More

According to Hall, there’s a lot of talk about the shift in power from brands to consumers, but not as much about the shift in the value equation. In other words, in order to get more from consumers, brands and marketers need to give consumers more of genuine value. This, he said, becomes increasingly important as the touch points between brands and consumers fragment and competition for consumer attention becomes increasingly intense.

“To achieve this, stop thinking communication and start thinking content with genuine value in people’s lives,” Hall said.

He uses the example of energy drink brand Red Bull, which has aligned itself with extreme sports and creates a volume of content so substantial that it owns its own media house, operates a TV station, prints a magazine and produces documentaries. The brand runs more than 900 domains under redbull and is one of the top five sports producers on YouTube globally, he said.

“Red Bull is a media empire that happens to sell a beverage,” Hall added.

4. Identify And Fulfill Unmet Consumer Needs

Matt Britton, CEO of creative and technology agency MRY, said marketers need to look at who their customers are and what they care about and ask themselves how they can fill any unmet needs via content.

“If a brand can deliver upon that unmet need, it won’t be noise,” he added.

5. Take Risks

“Flatness is failure,” said Matt Bruhn, senior vice president of global marketing at vodka brand Smirnoff. “If you’re delivering vanilla content, you’re wasting every dollar.”

In other words, brands that aren’t willing to take risks now and again create content that gets lost and they might as well produce nothing, he said.

“Bad content is useless everywhere,” Bruhn added.

6. Allow Consumers Some Control

Brands’ ever-reductive focus on efficiency means the streamlining of consumer experiences and the danger of this is that branded initiatives become less specialized and therefore less relevant to the consumer (i.e., more flat and personality-free rather than personalized as consumers want), Hall said. However, big data can help bring value to consumers the way ESPN does with its app, which provides sports feeds based on a user’s favorite team or sport and helps consumers narrow down to the type of content they want like scores and analysis.

7. Brands Are People (And Vice Versa)

Britton points to Mark Cuban, who has more followers than the Dallas Mavericks, and Bill Gates, who has more followers than Microsoft and said, “It has always been more about individuals than brands that have reach.”

In other words, the distinction between people and brands is gone and, like people, brands must have to have something unique that adds value.

8. Think Like Entertainment Brands

The attention span of consumers has become T-shaped – they scan content and dive deep only when they find something of interest, Hall said. That means brands can no longer dictate how consumers interact with content and need to rethink their approach, creating content with no beginning or end and that can be joined at any point.

He said entertainment brands like “Game of Thrones” are particularly successful here, but, so, too is quick service chain Chipotle, which “has done an interesting job of thinking like an entertainment brand and applying similar principles.”

That includes the brand’s Scarecrow film, app and game, which, Hall said, “reinforced the brand’s commitment to cultivate a better world by bringing food with integrity.”

9. Spark Conversation

Consumers share content and amplify it as a form of a communication in order to form community and to build personal brands, BuzzFeed’s Perelman said.

Further, brands that create engaging content the right way are able to ignite conversation so that it lives beyond the point of simply watching a video, he added. And they can do that, in part, by asking what’s in it for consumers and starting from the point of view of the consumer and why they would want to consume/share a piece of content.

10. Content Is King, But Distribution Is Queen

And coming from the assumption that a brand has great content because “you can’t have terrible content and amazing distribution,” Perelman said brands need to think about two different kinds of content sources he calls the Garden and the Stream.

The Garden is where consumers specifically go to get a piece of content, like Netflix. The Stream, on the other hand, comes to consumers like news feeds on social networks.

“When you’re creating content for those two extremes, it’s very, very different and you have to understand what it means when consumers are coming to you…as opposed to someone who is just falling upon something,” Perelman said. “When a friend shares something with you, there is an implied endorsement and when the friend adds you in a comment, you will engage and watch.”

11. Simplicity And Surprise

Perelman’s Two Ss of Stories are Simplicity – “I think we overcomplicate everything in life,” he said – and Surprise.

“It’s rare that we’re surprised nowadays, but when we are surprised, that’s when you lean in and engage longer,” Perelman said. “If you think about simplicity and surprise, it creates stickiness and you want to engage with it.”

He said BuzzFeed’s Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About video with President Obama, which encourages consumers to visit healthcare and has more than 50 million views, is a good example of content that marries these elements.

12. Make Your Content A Welcome Distraction

Consumers are actively looking to interact with content when they are killing time, such as when they’re waiting in line at a coffee shop. Video content that can be consumed in a few minutes and proves a welcome distraction is a good fit for both brand and consumer, Perelman noted.

13. Generate Content With Specificity

If brands focus on the idea of creating something with specificity, such as a video about being left-handed, righties don’t care, but it means a lot to the intended audience, Perelman said. It also serves as form of communication the intended audience will share among each other because they can relate to it.

“The power of the social web today means specificity can spread,” Perelman said. “What we’ve found is when you create something that highlights a group of people who are otherwise underrepresented, that [makes the intended audience] say, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”

14. Prepare For Big Moments That Might Yield Content

Bonin Bough, vice president of global media and consumer engagement at food and beverage conglomerate Mondelēz International, said everyone wants an Oreo Super Bowl moment now, but “what people don’t see is the background and willingness to prepare.”

To wit: Oreo’s Super Bowl preparation included its Daily Twist initiative, in which it created 100 pieces of content for 100 days and helped build what Bough calls “muscle memory” in terms of what legal and creative teams needed to be in the room to push out content on the fly.

“So in the war room for the Super Bowl, we were prepared. We knew we had a shot,” he said. “You can’t win the Super Bowl if you haven’t trained and played all the games.”

At the same time, that real-time content still has to be relevant and engaging.

Britton calls the Oscars after Super Bowl the “darkest days in the history of advertising” because every brand was trying to emulate Oreo by pushing out what he referred to as “clip art” and, he said, “none of it added value and it was all noise.”

15. Don’t Be A Nuisance

Smirnoff is fortunate because it is a social brand by its nature, but it nevertheless still tries not to insert itself where consumers don’t want it, Bruhn said.

“You want positive experiences and reinforcements and if you arbitrarily force yourself in where you’re not wanted, you’re likely to create a negative experience,” Bruhn said. “We try to find reasons we should be here and ask, ‘What’s the utility we provide?’”

What’s more, brands that make good content on the right platforms won’t be disruptive.

Every brand won’t have a right to be on, say, Instagram, but fashion, beauty, cosmetics and auto brands can play there just like they play in print, Britton said. And if they do a good job, they won’t be intrusive.

On a related note, brands don’t have to be on every single platform, Hall said. Marketers should look at media planning data to understand where consumers are active and consuming content and determine which platforms are right.

16. Steer Clear Of Dark Social

Networks like Whisper, Snapchat and Yik Yak are anonymous networks and brands don’t have a role there, Britton said.

“Consumers don’t want brands to have a role there. It’s not about the aggregation of data like Facebook,” he added.

17. Consider New Ways To Use Platforms, Distribute Content

Many marketers can’t get over the self-destructive nature of Snapchat, but Hall said to look at it as an opportunity for teasers, leaked content or behind-the-scenes content, which could be an ideal fit for some brands.

As the market moves toward a single screen per consumer, Lisa Weinstein, president of global digital, data and analytics at media communications agency Starcom MediaVest Group, said there is room for a lot of winners in video. Smart content creators, she said, are the ones that are looking at new ways to reach consumers with video and are leaning in to new ways to distribute content.

“I think YouTube and Facebook are making TV networks nervous. They do what the Super Bowl does once a year every day,” Britton said. “Ultimately where eyeballs are is on YouTube and Facebook. If I’m creating content, there’s no way I’m shopping to a network these days. I’m going to a digital platform and building my own audience.”

18. Crowdsource Video Production

For a brand with limited resources in terms of photography and video budgets, Britton recommends crowdsourcing to get content made.

“Millennials are moving to a free agent society,” he said. “Crowdsourcing is so underused.”

Are there any rules you would add to the list?